Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Hardcore Henry" is Mostly a Blood-splattered Snoozefest

"First they made him dangerous.  Then he made us blow chunks."

Movie: Hardcore Henry
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett

A gesture of love to the first-person shooter crowd, this joint Russian-American production promises a new vision of action movies, but only delivers a choppy gimmick, devoid of all thought, purpose, or meaning, with only its black humor and the surprising charm of Sharlto Copley to hold the descent into “hardcore” failure.

In depth:
As a youth, I admit that I never took part in the digitized blood sport of first-person shooters.  Except for some playing around with Portal 2 and GoldenEye 007, I’ve been largely left cold by the worlds of Doom, Half-Life, and the like.  So maybe I’m not the best person to judge Hardcore Henry, which clearly speaks to the Xbox fans who gleefully tuck away 15 hours behind a Halo marathon and a stack of pizza boxes.  But one’s personal experiences shouldn’t dictate whether or not a movie grabs you, and I came into Henry with an open mind.  Unfortunately, this very “openness” left me quite vulnerable, for I can’t possibly count the brain cells I must have lost over those 96 minutes.  Hardcore Henry, far from being the “groundbreaking new experience” as advertised, is simply another brain-dead action sink - which would still be enjoyable had it not been for some very poor choices on the part of the film makers in direction, characterization, and the assembly of anything like a plot.

Our story takes place at some point in the future, where our hero (that’s you, if you hadn’t guess it) is floating in the obligatory Vat of Ambiguous Healing Liquid that’s a mainstay of modern Sci Fi.  He’s greeted by the beautiful scientist Estelle (Bennett), who brings the audience and the amnesiac Henry - same thing, really - up to speed: they were husband and wife, but a tragic accident required that he be rebuilt a la Bionic Man style.  After a few touching moments together, the happy couple is interrupted by Akan (Kozlovsky), a telekinetic madman who apparently funded Estelle’s operations in the hope of obtaining a cybernetic super soldier in return.  Things don’t pan out as he expected, and Henry, after a daring escape, finds himself separated from his wife and on the run from Akan’s paramilitary thugs.  With no memories and no clue as to who he is, Henry has to rely on his brutal killer instincts and a mysterious ally (Copley) to carve a bloody path back to his wife.

Best part of waking up

I’d only be exaggerating a little if I told you that my summary is about half as substantial as the movie’s own plot.  Hardcore Henry is paper-thin, even by the lax standards of the videos game genre it so faithfully apes.  To be fair, though, that isn't really a problem; it's meant to be an ode to fast, frantic, gloriously nihilistic, grindhouse violence.  No one walks into something like this expecting Citizen Kane, and anyone above a minimum level of squeamishness and the cliche storm will get a sure-fire kick out of Henry’s increasingly violent escapades.  The first person viewpoint initially adds to the thrill, for along with streamlining audience focus and putting us up close and personal with the action, it also lets us live vicariously through every gun blast and knife wound he inflicts.  Henry is a wronged man, and we’re no doubt supposed to get a sick kick out of seeing our collective avatar deliver vengeance on every baddie in sight.

But it doesn’t take long for weariness and boredom to set in.  The “inventive” cinematography trick soon reveals itself to be just that - a trick, a cheap gimmick that, while fun and interesting the first half hour or so, quickly gets old.  And nauseating; I began feeling dizzy no later than the twenty minute mark, and between the constant motion sickness and the buckets of blood spilling every other second, my stomach was screaming obscenities at me and the screen by the time it was over.  This could have been kept to a tolerable level had there been anything in front of us or in the script to hold our attentions, but the first major flaw in Naishuller’s film making soon reared its ugly head.  Beyond the first-person schtick, there really isn’t anything to this movie.  While the unique view gives us an enticing tunnel vision that could, in the right hands, be exploited for any number of shenanigans, the script is too weak to make any use of it.  “Predictable” doesn’t even begin to describe it; the story’s practically transparent, which removes any sense of anticipation, dread, or interest beyond seeing the next blood fountain.  For the more discerning action fan, this can be quite the deal breaker, since it turns the whole thing into a monotonous dancing bear circus: a mind-numbing, hyper-linear and poorly-written dime-store shoot ‘em up, with only one trick to nudge it above the rest of its miserable herd.

You'd think the pliers would be enough
This cinema torpidity rests on the film’s all-too successful mimicking of the video game experience.  Too many scenes feel stretched out just to boost the body count; too much time is devoted to long chase sequences and literally dizzying battles that do everything to shove the action down your throat, but nothing to bite back the apathy sure to creep in with so much senseless slaughter.  You might argue that this was all intentional, a “stylistic” suckiness that’s all part of the masquerade.  And in part, you’d be right.  Hardcore Henry's signature grace is that it doesn’t take itself seriously, wrapping much of its absurdity in a fine linen of black comedy.  The endless violence and crudeness, while excessive to certain tastes, is so over-the-top that it’s practically farce, and gives it a delightfully grindhouse humor that makes the otherwise offensive or sickening series of events more bearable.  But alas, even this sprinkling of dark humor is more silly than smart - at times juvenile or downright insulting, at others, too stupid to even laugh at.  Big bad Akan was a perfect example, with Kozlovsly’s acting equal parts wooden and clownish, and nearly everyone else was completely forgettable.  

The sole exception is Jimmy, Henry’s one true, if somewhat dubious, ally, played by Sharlto Copley.  It’s hard to say anything about this guy without spoiling him, but he’s the only bandage on this gaping wound of a plot.  Copley, by the nature of his role, had to wear multiple hats, and he did so with style and flare, jumping naturally into each and every one of his character's many incarnations with ease.  With Henry being a rank mute, Jimmy was the prime source of the film’s comedy, the instigator and sustainer of its “plot,” and all-around the most pleasant thing on screen at any given moment.  He’s even the center of the film's one almost touching scene, his parting lines to Henry delivered with actual feeling and meaning.  But his departure in the final act opens more constant killing, which was painfully repetitive by that point.  

Oooh!  Is this the boss fight?  Where are me power-ups?

The fact that Hardcore Henry’s action, its supposed main draw, lulls you into a state of narcolepsy by film’s end shows how poorly built it is as a whole.  The effects were literally all over the place, for a second leaving you in awe that all this came out of a 10 million dollar budget, but soon after, a bald CGI or bad prop reminds you just how cheap it really is. The first-person perspective, plus the insane violence without real meaning, joined together to disconnect me from the movie very early on.  There’s so little of substance happening that your mind can almost sit through the entire thing without processing any of it. It was a struggle just to pay attention, and trudging through more of this deadening experience was hardly a reward for my efforts.  It’s one thing to watch a fun movie that lets you kick back and not have to think deeply about it.  It’s another to be forced into a stupor by the sheer nonsense of it all, and Naishuller and company failed to make that basic distinction.

It’d be hard to call Hardcore Henry a truly terrible movie; though it’s not my cup of tea, I’m not adverse to a little mindless action.  But every filmmaker should heed the warning of making things a little too mindless.  There’s nothing in Hardcore Henry you can't get from spending a few hours watching someone’s Half-Life Let’s Play on YouTube for free.  But who knows?  It might make a good video game one day.

Grade: D

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